Friday, September 10, 2010

Leah Chase, New Orleans Princess

The Dooky Chase Cookbook documents the life and recipes of Leah Chase, owner of the Dooky Chase restaurant in New Orleans. Her father-in-law, "Dooky" Chase, founded the restaurant in 1941, at a time when black people in New Orleans had few places other than home where they could sit down to a meal -- after years of selling lottery tickets door-to-door, Dooky Chase opened a "meager po'boy stand" where he sold both lottery tickets and food. She writes:
"With 'Dooky,' Sr., being so popular with the lottery and his wife, Emily, being such a good cook, before long they were outgrowing the little corner. Five years later the lottery passed from the scene but the shop was still a popular place to go. It was the only place of its kind for black people at the time." (p. 7)
Leah Chase's involvement with the family business started years later, but eventually she became the soul of the restaurant: owner, chief cook, and important local personality. During the Civil Rights era, the restaurant became a meeting place for activists as well as being popular with New Orleans establishment figures. Recent high-profile visits to Leah at her Dooky Chase Restaurant by George Bush and Barack Obama, and her long struggle to reopen after Hurricane Katrina are part of the story, but those events were long after she wrote the book. I enjoyed reading her description of her girlhood and her food memories, which interspersed with detailed recipes, which I look forward to trying.

Vegetables, for example, were the main dish for most family meals in the country atmosphere where she grew up. The family just couldn't afford much meat, though her mother loved fishing for perch and similar fish in local waterways, which were far from the sea.

"Coming up in the depression days," she wrote, "Daddy always planted everything. He planted greens, okra, and onions." The kids in the family had a lot of work to do, and she was often unhappy when her Daddy insisted on giving away tomatoes or onions that she had worked hard to cultivate. She's anything but nostalgic for her early labor:
"If you have ever grown vegetables yourself, you don't care if you grow another one in your life. I'd just as soon go down to the French Market and buy it off some vendor. Some of my sisters still grow herbs for me, but I don't care if I never grow another thing. Farming has got to be the hardest thing in the world. Having grown vegetables does make you more conscious of the quality of the things you are buying, though. There is nothing like fresh vegetables." (p. 168)
Since the original publication in 1990, Leah Chase has written another cookbook and also has been interviewed as a model for Disney's Princess Tiana, whose dream of owning her own New Orleans restaurant is a key plot item in the movie. Leah Chase is credited with one of the recipes in the tie-in cookbook -- which to our great surprise is actually a fantastic source of recipes:

For my previous posts on New Orleans cooking see: New Orleans Cookbooks, Alice's Birthday Cake, and What do princesses eat?

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